Medal-starved Cambodia will be looking for success on the mat at the Gowon Gymnasium in Incheon as four wrestlers set out next week to the third South Korean city to host the Asian Games after Seoul and Busan.
The Kingdom’s last medal-winning effort in the Asiad – two silvers in boxing and a bronze each in swimming and women’s volleyball – was way back in 1970 in Bangkok.
But that 44-year-long wait for a medal of any hue could well be over if 2013 Myanmar SEA Games gold medalists Chov Sotheara and Dorn Sov live up to expectations.
Arguably the best female wrestler of her generation, Sotheara has turned 30 and has shrugged off a strong impulse to retire for a final fling at an Asian Games medal that slipped out of her grasp in Guangzhou four years ago.
In what was a tense grip and grime contest, Sotheara lost the bronze medal playoff against South Korea’s Kim Hyungjoo – a heart-breakingly close call.
“She wanted to retire after the Myanmar SEA Games but I persuaded her to make this one last effort,” National Olympic Committee of Cambodia secretary-general Vath Chamroeun, himself an Olympian wrestler, told the Post yesterday.
“She has excellent grappling skills and I am confident she will put up a strong performance.”
Ever since she came into prominence with a gold at the 2009 SEA Games in Laos, Sotheara has never been out of the spotlight. She was one of the four Cambodian athletes to receive a special scholarship from the International Olympic Committee to help her qualify for the 2012 Summer Games.
Her bid for a place in the London Olympics came a cropper at the Asian Qualifiers in Kazakhstan, but it hardly dented her spirits. She struck gold at Napyidaw last year in what was Cambodia’s best ever bullion swoop on the mat.
In Incheon, Sotheara will be competing in the women’s 48kg freestyle category against a classy field, but national coach Thin Vichet is in no doubt that her vast experience should count in her favour.
“She came so close to a medal in Guangzhou. That may be four years ago, but she still wrestles with the same zest.
“She has trained hard and well. This category suits her and I expect a good performance,” added the coach, who is also the general secretary of the Cambodian Wrestling Federation.
For Chov Sotheara’s female team-mate Dorn Srey Mao, meanwhile, it is a huge step up. She found herself out of depth in the second Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing last month, but Vichet for one feels that the Asian Games experience would be crucial for the youngster’s career.
Cambodia’s medal hopes in the men’s section is firmly pinned on Dorn Sov, a SEA Games gold and silver medalist in the men’s 120kg freestyle and Greco-Roman classes respectively last year.
There is an element of anxiety as to how well he will handle the 96kg division he is competing in for the first time. However, both wrestler and coach are striking a confident note.
A piece of good news for the fourth member of the squad, Ngoun Makara, is that he has found the 61kg category, which is his preferred choice since he had been at a loss to find his favoured class in Myanmar.
How good are the medal prospects for Cambodia this time?
Coach Vichet, who had been involved with three previous SEA Games squads in Laos, Indonesia and Myanmar, has a balanced answer: “It is going to be tough, but I am hopeful.”
The wrestling events will be held from September 24 to October 2.
As world renowned wrestling coach Stephen Kazarian famously said after the conclusion of his second training course in Phnom Penh a few months ago: “I think Cambodia is ready for a wrestling medal in the Asian Games.”
The wrestling fraternity is hoping that Kazarian’s inspiring words ring true in Incheon.